Arthur Middleton on the Book of Common Prayer

On the Edge is a film about three men lost in Alaska. Confused about procedure, one man has a book about principles of survival, a digest of traditional wisdom from those who had survived similar situations. Following these principles they make a compass from a paper clip on a leaf and float it on water. It points southwards, the direction they seek. Their secret is to keep thinking. When a bear eats one of them and stalks the other two, the book advises them to lure the bear to leap towards them and impale itself on their pre-arranged wooden spears. The third defects and is killed but the survivor remains faithful to these principles and survives.

Molly was blind and had Alzheimer’s. With Billy she attended the weekly Prayer Book Eucharist until it became impossible. Billy thought it useless to bring her Communion in her state. I took it. Without text or hesitation she responded to the Prayer Book. It was a numinous experience. She knew what was happening and asked Billy to telephone and tell me it was the most wonderful experience of her life. These Communions became moments of reality in her confused world, because for decades her life had been immersed in the Church’s common prayer and tradition. The Prayer Book continued to be her compass in the confusion of Alzheimer’s.

Our compass

The unity, authority and principles of Anglicanism are preserved in the Prayer Book, whose 450 years we celebrate this year. This is our compass in the confused voices of our contemporary Anglican Babel. Its loss has cut Anglicanism from its moorings. Consequently we are in spiritual crisis, at the mercy, not of reformist movements, but revolution – the reconstruction of Christian doctrine, an identity crisis.

Our Lord told the Church in Sardis, ‘Be watchful and strengthen the things that remain that are ready to die’ (Rev. 3.2) when there was a depressive contrast between past splendour and present decay. These words can apply to the Church of England. Thank God we have ‘things which remain,’ in the Prayer Book’s magnificent ideals of worship, doctrine and life, even when not in harmony with twenty-first century culture.

God always sends his prophets when Israel corrupts its ways but the prophet never suggests a new departure. Always he recalls Israel to the ideal they had forgotten and demonstrates that abandoning the ideal is the cause of their troubles. This same God spoke through his Son to Sardis. Always, God recalls people to the ideal. Today he recalls us to the ideal and cautions us to be watchful and strengthen the things that remain. We are to adapt our life and culture to the ideal, not vice versa.

The ideal is authoritatively proclaimed in the Book of Common Prayer that expresses the faith and practice of undivided Christendom. The Anglican mind as embodied in her Prayer Book mirrors the tradition of the wider historic Church. The Nicene Creed, the practice of infant baptism you accept, not because you have thought them out but because you take them for granted on the authority of undivided Christendom.

If on any point of doctrine people find themselves at variance with the body of undivided Christendom, they are responsible before God and their fellow Christians for having isolated them selves from the main body. It is no good claiming ‘that is my view,’ as if that made an end of the matter. It is not important what ‘your view’ is, or what ‘my view’ may be. God is the Judge; and ‘views’ will fare badly in the judgement to come.

Look to the Prayer Book

In the wastelands of secularism, multiculturalism and political correctness, remember that the Tower of Babel reminds us of the confusion in a community that looks to the spirit of man for the guarantee of success. Where do we go from here? was the question in the wastelands of Alaska, where they found the answer not in their own views but in that digest of traditional wisdom, an authoritative standard outside themselves. That authoritative standard is embodied in the Prayer Book where the Church of England is claimed to be continuous in identity with the primitive Church.

So look to the BCP to know what the Church is, to know what bishops, priests and deacons in the Apostolic Succession are, to know what Christian marriage is, to know what sacraments are. What more do we need for the way of salvation? ND